Scholars differ in their opinions of what the film’s narrative and individual symbols demonstrate about American society in 1933, but the most pervasive in terms of popular readings of King Kong is the one of racist allegory and commentary on the white man’s view of African Americans in the US during this time.
The plot at its’ most basic certainly raises a few politically correct eyebrows. A heroic and entrepreneuring film crew sails to an unchartered island in Africa for a shoot. While there, their white leading lady (Ann Darrow) is kidnapped by the local ‘savages’ and offered to Kong who drags her literally kicking and screaming through the jungle of the island until she is rescued by her white knight in shining armor. Here, he is himself taken in chains back to New York to turn a profit for his captors, but breaks free, kidnaps Ann, and goes on a destructive tour of Manhattan before being shot down atop the Empire State building.
Carl Denham’s introductory speech here highlights the uncomfortable parallels this film draws with the US slave trade, and the ensuing years of civil tension between black and white Americans. Released 35 years before the end of segregation and the passing of the Civil Rights Act, the film offers up a disturbing portrait of the dominant white racial ideologies of the time, implying that the idea of America (as represented by Manhattan’s iconic topography) would be destroyed if the black man were given total freedom.
Here, Jackson returns to the original story. Instead of modernizing the story elements to today’s society, he instead remains loyal to the 1933 narrative and setting and appropriates only the style and characters to a 21st century audience. Jack Black, for instance, as the morally bankrupt movie producer Carl Denham, is more recognizable in the lexicon of today’s stereotypes of financially fixated businessmen than Robert Armstrong’s noble and heroic Denham would be today. Furthermore, it is in Jackson’s revision of those iconic symbols that the audience is ultimately potentially presented with the two most significant updates in the ideology of the “collective man” as represented by the remake – the identity of the black man and the relationship between black men and white women.
Peter Jackson’s Kong couldn’t be more physically different than the Coopers anthropomorphic antagonist. As the above featurette shows, extensive research was conducted to make sure that Kong’s appearance and behavior was consistent with that of a wild gorilla, rather than a gorilla with human behavioral qualities. Jackson revisits the special effects technology breakthrough that created Gollum in The Lord of The Rings: motion-capture technology. In having an actor (Andy Serkis) portray Kong, Jackson takes the unusual step of giving his primate title character a human actor’s range of physicalized
Nevertheless, unlike the 1933 King Kong where the African tribesmen and Kong are perceived under a similar gaze, here the film-makers go to lengths to distance Kong as an emotional character from the civilization he is a part of. He is given moments of great aestheticism filled with a melancholy and lonely tone that shows him to be separate from the horror of Skull Island, and therefore excluded from the way in which we perceive the culture of the island.
In correlation with the reading of the Kong as a metaphor for the black man, one of the most serious accusations leveled at Cooper’s King Kong is its commentary on the relationship between black men and white women. At its simplest and most grotesque, McKay argues that in representing the former as a primate, in King Kong “interracial sexuality is seen as literal bestiality” (McKay, 2005) Certainly, it is that aspect of the 1933 King Kong that has attracted the harshest criticism of the film as racist commentary.